Szmania's New Sizzle

A staid Magnolia bistro unveils its carnivorous side.

Dusseldorf-born Ludger Szmania, who turned 18 the year ABBA won the Eurovision Song Contest, has long nursed a dream of opening a nightclub. But his disco ambitions weren't shared by his wife, Julie, a sensible Seattleite who doesn't brook brightly colored cocktails and throbbing bass lines. So Szmania called up his dream-in-waiting: a steakhouse, serving four cuts of beef and potatoes in six different guises (two of which entail bacon). Earlier this summer, he scrapped the bric-a-brac menu of continental bistro dishes that's circumscribed Szmania's cookery since the Magnolia restaurant opened in 1990, and drafted a bill of fare worthy of a red-meat temple. Buffed clean of its French and Italian flourishes, Szmania's is still very much a neighborhood restaurant—albeit one deserving of attention from carnivores who have to cross a bridge to eat there. Szmania, a 20-year veteran of high-end hotel kitchens, might have created a superlative nightclub. But eaters whose culinary moods sometimes ordain a salad slathered with blue cheese dressing, a steak, and a baked potato should thank Julie for insisting her husband go with the steakhouse instead. The template for the revised Szmania's comes from a different stencil set than the one used by a raft of nationally syndicated steakhouses. The restaurant isn't hung up on transfusing its guests with Mad Men–era glamour: There's no shame here in not putting a meal on an expense account, or skipping cigars after dinner. Szmania's homey dining room plays to a comfortably multigenerational crowd, which seems to drink more soda and milk than martinis and cabernet. Hanging sconces wearing patterned Ikea lampshades, standard-issue salt and pepper shakers, and floral glass etchings help make Szmania's feel like a restaurant in a much smaller town. It's an impression deepened by the familiarity between staffers and guests. "I know 90 percent of the people who come in, which is a blessing," Szmania says. And the steakhouse shift was concocted partly to keep those regular customers engaged, he adds. "It's important that we change, not just a little menu change, but that we change drastically, so it's exciting for customers to come in," he says. "Anything you do for 20 years, you deserve a change. You might as well go with gusto." Szmania has strived to change his restaurant in a palpable way every few years, although he concedes the latest reworking is "rather large." He's tinkered with the menu, added a fireplace, built a bar, and created an open kitchen. While many restaurant owners who've managed to outlast a presidential administration cling to their successful formulas as tightly as an acrophobic grips the restraining bar on a roller coaster, Szmania is neither sentimental nor superstitious. He says his customers have stuck by him through every innovation. "It's always a risk, but you have to know your clientele," he says. "I think it's important to focus on your neighborhood. I always say 'neighborhood, neighborhood, neighborhood,' but that's where our customers come from."  About the same time Szmania was wrestling with the enervated economy, he began hearing gripes about the difficulties of finding a decent steak anywhere near Magnolia. Taking the complaints as a cue, he spent months sourcing ingredients and devising a pricing structure in which every steak comes with a salad. The steakhouse concept premiered in June, and Szmania reports his longtime guests love it (although a few of them perk up when tuna with Thai curry sauce—a former menu fixture—turns up on the specials list). "It's been a good changeover," he says. Szmania didn't discard every established dish: He's always served a steak, and continues to offer two German dishes, presumably because diners who heard his accent would otherwise ask him why he didn't. If you select a German Classic, prepare to covet whatever is on your tablemate's plate, as neither entrée is as good as what one might expect from a restaurant bearing a name that starts with three consonants. The saltine-hued pretzels are cheats, soaked in a baking-soda solution instead of the lye that gives Bavarian pretzels their characteristic caramelized crust and chew. The Teutonic sides are just fine: Braised red cabbage rumbles with a rustic, sweet flavor, and the mild spätzle is doughy and tender. But the jäger schnitzel is oddly acidic and dry, despite being doused in a mushroom-laden red-wine sauce. The bratwurst isn't housemade—Szmania's purchases its sausages from Bavarian Meats, so all the kitchen has to do is grill them. But timing was apparently off the night I ordered the bratwurst platter, because the sausages were so desiccated I had to wave down our server for a side of mustard. Service can be frustratingly inept at Szmania's. On one visit, a server disappeared for nearly 30 minutes after taking our orders; a cook in the open kitchen who spied our empty table and drained glasses finally took pity on us and trotted out a basket of bread. The fugitive server's antipathy for her work was matched only by her apparent dislike of flavor: Asked for recommendations, she suggested a filet mignon "without any fat" and a halibut that "doesn't taste like fish." Her reasoning didn't sway me, so I can't attest to the championed blandness of either dish. But I did find a fair number of others worth trying. A messy Alsatian tart is a sort of flaky French-onion pizza, bubbling with bronzed Muenster. Lustrous house-smoked salmon—served in thick ribbons alongside herb crostini and a ramekin of cream cheese gussied up with capers—peals with a clean smoke flavor. Half the smoked-salmon plate is occupied by tired leaves of lettuce, a recurring theme at Szmania's. Although Szmania owns a small farm, which he describes as "mainly a vineyard," the restaurant doesn't pretend to care deeply about its produce. The ho-hum "fresh green salad" included with every entrée order is nothing but what a supplier would label "spring mix." "We buy a regular lettuce mix," Szmania confirms. "Sometimes we add a little bit more spinach." The vegetables that show up on entrée plates are equally dispiriting. The stiff green beans and carrot wedges served with every entrée seem lonely without an overcooked chicken breast, the medley's constant companion at weddings and awards banquets. Szmania's reserves the whole of its vegetable prowess for potatoes. Potatoes au gratin are a cheese-soaked treat, but the clear winner of the restaurant's potato pageant is a serving of hand-cut French fries, which are startlingly good. The brassy, skin-on fries are fried twice after being soaked overnight in ice water, a popular trick for drawing out starches which could prevent fries from reaching peak crispness. The fries tend to have bewitchingly creamy centers, an attribute that not every Szmania's guest appreciates. "They don't always come out crunchy," Szmania says. "Some people get it and some people don't." You ought to be among the people who get them, ideally beside a center cut strip that's the best on Szmania's menu. The well-marbled steak has a lingering juiciness and richness consistent with weeks of dry-aging. A quartet of fancy sauces are available at $3 a pop, but the steak doesn't need a dousing of Gorgonzola or wine. Szmania's uses corn-fed Nebraska beef. "We did a lot of comparisons over the years, and grass-fed is usually tougher," Szmania says. But the deliciousness of Szmania's steaks isn't merely a product of good raising: Every cut is seasoned with smoked paprika, garlic, onion, thyme, and rosemary, a precisely engineered blend that catapults the beef from superior to superb. While the kitchen was sometimes wobbly on temperatures, its tendency to slightly undercook is justified by the meat's high quality. The steak at Szmania's is certainly worth seeking before its namesake again meddles with the menu, or trades his restaurant for a nightclub. "I don't know how many more times we're going to change, because I'm getting old," says Szmania, who surely realizes that a friendly neighborhood restaurant which serves great steaks and fries is a concept that doesn't require any reworking. Price GuidePretzel  $4House-smoked salmon  $10Cheese tart  $9.50Center-cut New York strip steak  $37Jäger schnitzel   $24Bratwurst  $15

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